Master Chef: Burning Man

The Huffington Post has published a story from Saveur about The Epic Food Scene at Burning Man:

photo from Saveur

photo from Saveur

…food was at the heart of this French Quarter: The Santopalato Supper Club featured a different chef’s cooking each night. I traveled there, and everywhere, from my tent using the festival’s preferred mode of transportation: a bicycle. It’s amazing what you can discover peddling through the dust, like the Pacificana pop-up at Santopalato. Marketing consultant Victoria Davies grilled ginger flank steak and chile-laced sweet-potato cakes over an open fire. Down the street, Darias Jonker and other volunteers at Black Rock Bakery turned out crusty breads from an old airport Cinnabon oven. The efforts of these temporary restaurateurs are astonishing. Yehonatan Koenig, an Israeli-born ad agency director from California, started planning six months out for his special boil dinner, for which he flew in 100 pounds of live crawfish, cooking everything in two 80-quart pots…

…To find the popular Dust City Diner — a ’50s-era greasy spoon run by California artists Michael Brown and David Cole — I biked into the central open sand, searching for its LED sign. At a Formica counter jerry-rigged in a flatbed truck, servers in blond beehive wigs sporting names like Dixie dished out coffee and pancakes on classic blue china. At other eateries, some of my favorite things are the sweets. When you’re tussling with sandstorms, you just kind of want a treat — something like Davies’ yogurt cake with passion fruit sauce — to keep your spirits lifted and primed for yet another crazy experience on, say, a 30-foot pendulum swing or an animal-shaped art car

The underlying premise to this post is an interesting one: taking. Is Burning Man like a shopping mall, where you just pick where you want to go and what you want to do; then when you show up, you’re entitled to get that for free? Or is it more like Christmas? A world of one wonderful surprise after another. You never know what you’re going to get next…and whether you like it or not, you have to say thankyou because it’s a gift.

BM2010-VegCamp-Sign-and-crowdI have enjoyed free food gifted to me by others at BM before. I’ve even gone to seek out specific camps because I was hungry and thought they might have food. But I have never thought to take a connoisseur’s approach – planning my meals around all the epic cuisine available, so that I may sample and compare. Seems like there could be a lot of queuing up involved, not to mention navigational challenges. Soon we will need TripAdvisor and OpenTable at Burning Man…

money burningAs the party grows beyond the limits, it seems that these are the type of things that will come under the most pressure. The pile of money floating to the promoters gets bigger and bigger, while at the same time the money required from camps to Gift something to an ever-expanding population increases. Our expenses go up as their revenues go up. The logistics of arranging food for 50,000 people were significant; the logistics of arranging food for 70,.000 people are at least 40% more expensive, and probably more complicated. Every year, the lines get longer.

burning-man-xanadu-kitchenThe party is only going one way: bigger. Ticket prices have only ever been going one way: up. Food, energy, labor, and other logistics costs are all increasing due to inflation. These have to be borne by the camps, while Burning Man relies 99% on volunteer labor- even those few who do get paid, choose “labor of love” wages over the lucrative, stock option-laden employment packages that are floating around this scene in San Francisco. This year BMOrg’s costs to put on the party went up to a whopping $11,232,928. Revenues also went up, to $30 million. BMOrg increases its prices much more than inflation, from $35 in 1996 to $200 in 2000 to $448 in 2014. Ticket prices feed back into the production costs, camps have to bring more people out to cater for a larger event, and there are many “hidden” costs like driver access for re-supply. Ticket prices also feed directly into BMOrg’s tax-free treasure chest, since most of their fixed costs are actually for their year-round staff, not the week-long annual event. Even the party-related expenses include $2.5 million in royalty payments to the owners.

Is there a limit to growth in this model? Or has The Burning Man Project truly mastered the sharing economy, and is offering us a revolutionary new business model? Maybe Burner benefactors just shrug their shoulders and say “last year, we made grilled cheese sandwiches for 50,000 people. They were all gone by the second day. So, this year we are going to bring triple the amount of sandwiches and kitchen staff”. Even if they do, is that infinitely scaleable? Is it replicable in places like Israel and Africa and Australia? If so, thirty years of social engineering experiments in conjunction with Stanford and other colleges have truly resulted in a disruptive breakthrough for capitalism. A corporate structure where:

  • 99% of the workers are free
  • the workers  are responsible for all their time and expenses
  • workers have to get their own insurance, in case the work they did was sub-standard
  • the workers bear all the cost increases
  • more, better work = more customers and higher prices = more costs for the workers, more revenues for the owners
  • the owners can increase revenues and customer numbers (workload) without reference to the workers needs or capabilities
  • a middle management layer is not required, the workers self-manage
  • there is no transparency, oversight, or accountability on the owners
  • the whole thing is tax-free

Forget the Maker movement or the Nobel prize winning idea of micro-finance! This magical organization model could be the economic miracle that fuels the New American Century.


Mutant Gas Alert!


by Whatsblem the Pro

In news that will surely upset those who fondly imagine Larry Harvey as Moses handing the Ten Principles down to the Chosen, the Org is testing the waters to see if a Black Rock City gas station might be a workable idea.

Yesterday, the following e-mail was sent out to registered Mutant Vehicle owners:

Greetings BRC licensed vehicle owners.

To best support the Burning Man community in ways that make sense, we are researching the possibility of having fuel available for BRC licensed vehicles on playa this year. To fully research this, we need some information from you on your potential fuel needs. We only need you to fill out the survey if you are planning on bringing your vehicle to be licensed by the BRC DMV on playa in 2013.

In brief, we are looking at the possibility of a system where you would prepay for credit that you would then use on playa via some sort of token or card to fill your Mutant Vehicle or Disabled permitted vehicle. This would not be for other vehicles at the event. No money would be exchanged on playa. You would possibly be able to add more credit to the system if you run out on playa, and we are also researching options on how to handle unused funds. The exact process is still pending. Prices would be comparable to or possibly less than fuel in Gerlach.

Please fill out the following survey on the link below so we can assess fuel needs. We recommend you fill out the survey using a full computer and not a smart phone or tablet.

Respondents were asked to provide their names, e-mail addresses, names of vehicles, and an estimate of how many gallons of fuel they expect to use on the playa. A space for additional comments was also provided.

It’s silly to decry this as a potential violation of the principle of decommodification. . . or is it?

In one sense, it definitely is silly. The decommodification of the playa began as a utilitarian thing, not some holy-joe attempt at purifying our spirits by freeing us from the evil bonds of Mammon. I’ve written about sacred cows and the origins of on-playa decommodification before; if it lacks a profit motive, this idea of providing a gas station for Mutant Vehicle owners only conflicts with the decommodification principle if you’re some kind of trash-eating zealot who is so allergic to capitalism that touching a dollar bill would make you break out in open sores.

On the other hand, if there’s a profit motive here, then what we’re looking at is the Org testing the waters for the establishment of future revenue streams. With Burning Man going non-profit, the founders and other Org players who have been raking in millions of dollars from ticket sales each year will soon see the primary source of their great wealth turn to dust and ashes. . . and money is known to be a powerfully addictive substance.

We should all recognize that a gas station would be a useful, handy thing to provide for Mutant Vehicle owners that would reduce waste and fuel transport inefficiencies. However, we should also be aware that BRC already has a gas station, run by DPW. Traditionally, if you want to gas up your art car there, you pay in beer. Lots of beer. It’s possible that the Org is simply trying to stem that flow. We should also recognize, however, that with all the money pouring into their coffers and all the expense and labor of building and operating a Mutant Vehicle, it might be reasonable to expect the Org to provide MV drivers with gasoline for free, or at least at cost.

Now let’s look at that e-mail again:

Prices would be comparable to or possibly less than fuel in Gerlach.

Well there’s the rub right there. If fuel prices at an on-playa gas station are comparable to retail prices in Gerlach, then someone’s going to be turning a profit on this. If the prices are less than retail in Gerlach, how much less will they be? If it’s higher than at-cost, we again must wonder who’s raking it in.

Who's pumping you?

Who’s pumping you?

Given that the Org has profited so mightily on an event that has been mainly dreamed up and built by volunteer labor and paying attendees, it seems par for the course but still a bit of a slap in the face on several levels to watch them cynically size us up for further fleecing, if in fact that’s what they’re doing. . . and make no mistake: whether or not this is an example of a fleecing in the offing, we can be sure that now that the Org is going non-profit, ancillary businesses controlled by insiders will be popping up like mushrooms on a cow pat. It’s going to be George Bush’s great-grandfather selling rifle straps and stocks to the army all over again. To deny this is to deny that the people running the Org are greedy in proportion with the wealth they’ve already attained, and that would be giving them credit where none is due; they are, after all, human beings, with all the ethical frailty being human implies.

Oh, and speaking of credit:

You would possibly be able to add more credit to the system if you run out on playa, and we are also researching options on how to handle unused funds.

I’ll bet. At this point, it’s hard to say what this gas station idea truly portends. . . but we do know from long experience that basic accounting is extremely difficult for the Org, even though they find advanced game theory so easy.

All levity aside, let’s hope Mutant Vehicle owners benefit from this without funneling more undeserved wealth into the hands of people who are already undeservedly wealthy.